Retired Airline Captain/Former
USMC Fighter Pilot
Bob Raab retired as a Captain of a major airline in 1995. When he left active service as a pilot with the United States Marine Corps he was also a Captain.
What was it like growing up in a military family?
I consider it unfortunate that I didn't get to spend more of my young years as an Army Brat, but I am very thankful for those I had. My mother married my stepfather, an Army Master Sergeant, when I was 14. The closest friendships I had as a teenager were other military kids. We spent two years at Ft. McPherson in Atlanta, and then transferred to Japan where I thoroughly enjoyed part of my junior year and all of my senior year of high school. In addition to being the most enjoyable of my teenage years socially, the ten months of school turned out to be a defining experience in my life.
I graduated from Narimasu High School, Tokyo, Japan, in 1955. I am still friends with some of my classmates. With one exception, I have not formed a closer friendship with anyone since. In the military family environment kids don't just go to school together, their lives are entwined in everything they do and that makes for very close relationships.
Did you have a favorite teacher?
My chemistry and physics teacher, Roy Ketchum, is the finest teacher I have ever had, and that includes college, Marine Corps Officers School, Navy flight training and countless training classes during 28 years with the airline. Roy was the source of my life-defining experience at Narimasu. He instilled in me a study ethic and the joy of learning. I do not doubt that my life would have been far less successful had Roy not been a part of it. We are still friends and I look forward to seeing him in May. He officially retired from teaching high school in 1981 but has been teaching at a local college in Rochester, New York since.
Did the fact that your stepfather was an Army Master Sergeant inspire you to join the military?
Definitely yes. Why? I liked the structure of military life. I knew early on that a 9-5 job was not for me. I liked the idea of moving every three years. Each assignment offers the possibility of a job that is completely different from anything done previously. When I started college I had to take the Reserve Officers Training Corps program and I opted for the Air Force. However, about the end of my sophomore year I met my girlfriend's brother-in-law. He was going through Marine Corps Officers Training and later Navy flight training. Hearing his experiences, I knew the Marine Corps was going to be my home. I signed up that summer. It was the most "right thing" I had done to that point in my life. I spent half of the next two summers in training and on graduation day, from Georgia Tech, I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. I couldn't ask for a better day than that.
Was your life affected directly by any wars due to your father's career in the military or your own tour of duty?
How could one's life not be affected by any war? My stepfather went to Korea in 1953. His absence did not directly affect my life; no emotional attachment had yet formed. We remained in military housing, which was a positive environment, and after Korea he was sent to Japan where we joined him.
As a Marine Corps pilot I was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 1962 after the missile crisis. The squadron was not there on a war footing, but more to show a presence. My second squadron stood the hot pad in Key West, Florida in late 1963. When the president [John F. Kennedy] was assassinated we were placed on high alert.
Those two deployments were great experiences for me, certainly not 9-5 desk jobs. I was in my element.
Are there any drawbacks to a military life?
It was tough from the viewpoint of husband and father. I had married just prior to completing flight training, and by the time of the first deployment we had one son. Long deployments are undoubtedly more difficult for the family members. You worry about your wife and children but there is little you can do other than to write and provide financial support. Meanwhile, your wife has to be father and mother. My daughter was born while I was in Japan. It takes a very special woman to be a military wife.
The squadron deployed to Japan in June of 1964 for 13 months. Like 99% of Marine deployments, families were left behind. There is good reason for that policy. The Marine Corps is usually the first to go into an area of conflict and there just isn't time to take care of family concerns. In early 1965 we were ordered to Vietnam. We flew our first combat mission within 36 hours of receiving those orders.
What is the best thing about the military life?
The best thing about military life is the military life. I loved it. It comes with its own kind of difficulties, but even those enrich the experience. It certainly isn't for everyone. I know from my years as an Army Brat and time spent with the Navy and Air Force, that I would not have been as enthusiastic about those three services. While it may not be true for small specific units, those services lack the camaraderie that is so strong within the Marine Corps.
If you call the Chief of Staff of the Air Force an airman, or the Chief of Naval Operations a sailor, or the Chief of Staff of the Army a soldier, you will get a dirty look or a dressing down. If you call the Commandant of the Marine Corps a Marine, you will get a salute and a smile. Ask someone with a military background what service they were in, they will reply "I was in the Army", "I was in the Navy", "I was in the Air Force", or "I'm a Marine".
What types of planes did you fly as a commercial pilot?
With the airline  I started in a DC-6, a four-engine propeller plane. The airline sold all of their propeller planes in the late 60's. I spent several years as a flight engineer, that's the guy that sits sideways behind the captain and co-pilot. The flight engineer took care of the mechanical systems of the aircraft. The flight engineer position no longer exists. Newer technologies have automated the operation of the aircraft systems.
Everything in the airlines is determined by seniority, vacations, monthly schedules, the position you fly and on which airplane. The larger the aircraft the higher the pay scale for each position, co-pilot, and captain. I upgraded to co-pilot for four years and then to captain for the remainder of my career.
I flew the Boeing-727, 757, 767, 747, and the Douglas DC-8. The latter, in my opinion, was the best aircraft the airlines have ever used. On that aircraft you could lose the hydraulics, the generators, and the battery, and still fly to your destination, lower the landing gear, and make a safe landing. I spent 18 years on that aircraft and would have finished my career there if the airline had not sold them.
What were your favorite subjects in school?
Math, Chemistry, Physics, and lunch. I guess I like things that are orderly by nature. I haven't had occasion to use chemistry or physics in real life, but math has always been of great help. You don't have to be a math whiz to be a pilot. The four basic math operations will do. A little algebra and some basic trigonometry help. Probably the most useful subject from high school was typing, which I took only because I was the lone boy in the class. However, knowing how to type was of great use in college and ever after.
Which were your least favorite or most difficult?
English was my least favorite. In fact, I failed English in the 9th grade. However, writing is one of the things we use daily, and how well we write makes a strong impression on our reader. If your resume is written at an 8th grade level, you ain't getting the job.
Becoming a good writer is like becoming a good athlete. You have to work at it daily. Professional writers write everyday even if they have nothing special to write about. I have talked to writers who are suffering from writer's block; they just cannot get the next line in their book. They still write, even if it's just an hour-by-hour accounting of the previous day's activities.
What was the most memorable event of your childhood?
My most memorable event is not a happy one. I was raised by my grandfather and my childhood was great until the age of nine. At nine I was sent to a military boarding school. I spent two years there. That experience totally changed my life. I closed down emotionally. My grandfather, who had been mother, father, and best friend, lost my trust. In my view as a child he had abandoned me. We were never again close. Boarding school was a more traumatic experience than even Vietnam. Even now, over 50 years later, it affects my life.
How often did you move as a child?
I moved once prior to boarding school. I escaped from boarding school at age 11 when my mother came back into my life. I then moved or was moved from Wisconsin to Los Angeles to Bamberg, South Carolina, to Savannah, Georgia, to Atlanta, Georgia, five addresses there, then to Japan, back to Atlanta and four more address changes. By then I was out of college. You could say I have no roots, I look at it as having roots everywhere.
In what countries have you lived? Is their any particular place that you liked best?
Other than the U.S., I have lived in Japan. I did spend several months in Vietnam, but I wouldn't say I lived there.
There are many places I have visited where I would enjoy living. In the U.S., the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, lake country in Minnesota or Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Maine, all come to mind. There are so many beautiful choices. I spent some time living on a lake in my teens. One of my goals is to have a small home on a large, forested, rural lake.
My top choices of other countries are New Zealand and Australia. The people are wonderful, the land is diverse, and life is comparatively simple. An Australian actor observed that while the U.S. is occupied with outer space, the major concern in Australia is finding an effective sunscreen for your nose.
Did you ever want to do some other type of work?
During my airline years, I did some acting and attended acting school. After retirement I went at it full time. I attended three acting schools, signed up with an agency for extra work in TV and film, and went on countless auditions. I did get a lot of work and enjoyed some of it. However, the many hours of sitting around finally got to me. I was told, and my experience confirms it, that for an 18-hour day on a feature film, two minutes of screen time is the norm. For a TV series it's seven minutes. The most fun I had was working on a USC student film. They were also the most organized.
I was amazed at the number of very talented people, many much better actors than some big names, who keep doing neighborhood theater, workshops, student films and working as extras, in the hope of being in the right place at the right time to be seen by the right person, just once. For every Matt Damon there are thousands who are of equal talent and appeal who never make it.
Persistence can pay off. I was told that Luke Perry, of Melrose Place fame, got his first acting job on his 226th audition. I have been in classes with amazing talents who have been on more auditions and still haven't broken out. It is definitely a labor of love requiring a passion for the craft.
What hobbies do you have?
I love reading. I subscribe to eight magazines. I used to subscribe to the New York Times, but I canceled because I don't have time for that brand of fiction. I do like classic fiction.
I'm an avid weightlifter and cardio enthusiast. Before the Marine Corps, exercise wasn't part of my life. Since basic training, staying fit has been as important to me as eating and breathing. I have a well-equipped gym in my house and use it daily. Your brain needs the "exercise" that it gets from studying and exploring new things. Your body needs exercise so that it will stay healthy and provide support for your brain.
Do you travel very much now?
I lost the urge to travel while with the airline. However, I have looked at this great country from 35,000 feet for years and recently decided to see it all at ground level. I take delivery of an Airstream trailer next month and plan on being on the road for months at a time. I was inspired by John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley. He toured the country in a camper with his dog, a standard poodle, named Charley. I'm going to keep notes and may write a book of my own, Travels with Lily. Lily is my West Highland Terrier, a dear and gentle soul.
Traveling throughout Europe in a trailer would be a wonderful experience. Visiting places so rich in history, experiencing the cultures, spending time in museums, I would like to do that for a couple of years.
Is their any particular place you call "home"?
I have lived in southern California in my current house for 31 years. However, it does not feel like home. I feel more at home when I visit my daughter and her family. I also get that "I'm home" feeling of contentment any time I drive onto a military base, especially a Marine base. I guess that old saying is true, "Home is where the heart is."
If you had your life to do over again, would you take the same path?
I have had a very nice life. There are some things I would do over, because the rewards from those efforts provided that very nice life. My mother and stepfather put me through my first year of college. They were then transferred to Germany. For their own reasons they decided to contribute nothing further to my education. I had two choices available to me. I could get a full time job and live life as best I could or I could get a part time job and go to college part time.
That summer I worked for the city on a road construction crew. I poured concrete, operated a jackhammer, dug ditches, and spread tar. It was exhausting and dirty work. The other eight members of the crew ranged in age from 24 to 52. They made me realize that if I chose the work only path, I might be doing roadwork for the rest of my life. They all encouraged me to stay with college.
For the next five years I worked more part time jobs than I can remember. Some of them: parking lot attendant, janitor in the college infirmary, night clerk at a motel, retail sales, bar tender, warehouse stocker, filling station attendant, septic tank cleaner, roofer, stadium sweeper, mail room clerk, paper factory machine operator (the worst), and more.
It was a lot of work, but I succeeded in putting myself through college. A four-year degree took me six years. I graduated in June of 1961 and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. That in itself was great and it also provided me with the training to later become an airline pilot.
What advice do you have for children around the world reading this interview?
Had I chosen the work only path and not stuck with college, June of 1961 would have found me still doing roadwork. My point is, no matter what your financial circumstances, you can get an education. It may not be easy, but the rewards are substantial. Even if it takes you six years, that is a very small part of your lifetime. Those years will pass no matter what you do, but what you are doing at the end of those years, and for the rest of your life, is totally up to you.
If I had it to do over again I think I would have tried to experience more of what's out there before I settled onto one path. Commercial flying is a job that didn't offer much satisfaction. It's better than 9-5, but it isn't challenging. Knowing what I know now, I would have been a dancer. Ballet, jazz, ballroom, hip-hop, dances from different countries, and with those skills I would have been able to experience the world. I admire anyone who is accomplished in the arts.
My three children have college degrees. I helped the boys financially, but my daughter insisted on doing it on her own. She is independent. After they graduated I told my children to explore life, to find what it has to offer. I suggested that they put off getting married and choosing a career path. I told them that while they were still responsible only for themself, to travel as much as they could. Explore the possibilities. Take a part time job when you need money in an area you would like to explore, and then move on.
I have a friend, who after college graduation actually worked his way around the world. He helped build a house in Belgium, did odd jobs in England, waited tables in Italy (without speaking Italian!), dug wells in Africa, sheared sheep in Australia, basically whatever work he could find wherever he was. He said it was the experience of a lifetime.
The challenge is to learn more, better yourself, expand your endeavors, and never stop pushing the envelope. People make mistakes. You will make mistakes. Learn from your mistakes, put them behind you, and move on.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
I have been a perfectionist. Many times that has slowed me down. Sometimes perfection is not required. The quote:
"The perfect is the enemy of the good."
I heard this one recently:
"Seeking vengeance is like hitting yourself and expecting someone else to hurt."
Read more about Bob's experience in the Marines
- 5 March 2003
24 March 2003
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